Driving is a privilege, not an entitlement
A year ago a lovely woman I know through my work lost her husband in the most devastating of car accidents.
Kelly, Anthony and their kids were travelling in their car in Western Australia when a canopy detached from a boat being towed in front and slammed into the windscreen of their car.
Anthony was airlifted to hospital but had suffered catastrophic brain damage. Heartbroken, Kelly spent the night sleeping with him hand-in-hand before doctors turned off his life support the next day.
In essence, those are the facts.
But over the course of the last year all of us who know Kelly have been given a special insight into how this kind of tragedy impacts a family. Thanks to her profound thinking, extraordinary writing skill and willingness to share both the gut-wrenching and uplifting moments via regular Facebook updates, we've been granted a deeper understanding of what the human heart goes through after the condolence cards have been packed away.
It's harder, sharper and more unrelentingly painful than most of us will ever know. And while Kelly's reflections are hers, not mine, to share they've intensified the way I absorb news of tragic car accidents.
Images of Leila Abdallah at the Sydney crash site where three of her children were killed last weekend by an alleged drunk driver leave us in despair. Likewise, the family photos of Kerry Yelland captured with her husband and three adorable boys before she was killed when debris from an oncoming truck hit the family's car near Parkes. As her husband said, she was everything anyone could want in a woman. Now little Harry, Sam and George no longer have a mum.
Perhaps it's because one of my daughters is on her P-plates and the other on her L-plates, but suddenly I care very very much about what is happening on our roads.
There are so many tragedies we have no personal control over - earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, plane crashes, terrorist attacks - but any of us who drives a car has the ability to improve our own and others' safety.
Of course, there will always be freak accidents. But there will also be accidents that could've been prevented with greater care, more education, less haste, changes in behaviour and deeper respect for and understanding of those we share the road with.
Owning a car used to be a source of pride verging on reverence. There was a sense that you were operating a very powerful machine and that it needed to be handled with care and caution. I remember being aged 10 and my grandparents buying a new Toyota Corolla in a fashionable shade of "cappuccino". My grandad pored over that car, polishing its gleaming bumper and forbidding us kids from leaning against it, before taking us for a painfully slow drive around the local streets.
I don't see that reverence now. Instead our vehicles are treated as an entitlement and a means of convenience in an increasingly frantic world. We drive fast and arrogantly, often on the edge of rage. We speed down quiet suburban streets, race through orange traffic lights and think nothing of being fully immersed in a podcast or phone conversation, some, staggeringly, with the phone pressed to their ear. In the past few months I've been present when a friend shrieked at her husband for turning at full speed in front of an oncoming car and witnessed as a mum watched with horror as her P-plater son sped down a street at 3.20pm as children emerged from school.
I say all this not from some higher moral standpoint but as someone who lost their licence. Several years ago I gained 13 points due to various (mostly minor) infringements but, added up, they revealed my lack of care. I was inattentive and impatient and over the course of my three-month ban I thought a lot about the driver I was versus the one I needed to be.
That thinking has also underpinned teaching my daughters to drive. I know the driving test is more rigorous than it's ever been but that doesn't change the fact that P-platers are among the most at risk. This is a generation brought up on computer games and movies where the hero walks away from high speed car crashes to continue fighting the bad guys. People bounce off bonnets, cars erupt into flames, and bystanders are miraculously left standing. It's a fantasy world free of heartbroken families and emergency service personnel emotionally broken by the horror they've had to witness. Indeed, we're so desensitised that many found it hard to believe when Fast and Furious star Paul Walker died after the Porsche he was travelling in crashed while speeding.
The fact is our kids get very little road safety advice after they've been taught to cross the street as infants. That's why excellent programs like RYDA are going into schools to teach them that whether they're a driver or passenger they contribute to the safety of the road users around them. They learn about decision-making, speed, crash factors and how their mood can impact their driving.
There are many things in life we can't influence. Surely, we should take greater care when it comes to those we can.